This book by Joseph Conrad followed on the heels of Petersburg by Andrei Bely, which is also set in Russia around the period 1905 when throwing bombs at politicians was a popular way of expressing discontent with the Tsarist rule. The cover made it stand out as a related read with a picture of a man fleeing the bronze horseman.
A diligent student, Razumov, is interrupted one night by a fellow student Victor Haladin who explains that he has assassinated a politician and needs someone trustworthy to help him escape. He has clearly misunderstood Razumov’s sympathies and instead the student reports the assassin to the police via his mentor Prince P. Haladin is captured and executed but as a result of the his brush with the revolutionaries Razumov is considered to be one of them and becomes a secret agent sent to Geneva to unearth the activities of the exile Russian community. But Haladin’s mother and sister live in Geneva and Razumov finds that in the end the only option left to him is to confess both to the Haladin’s and the revolutionists his role and as a reward he has both ear drums burst and without the aid of hearing walks into a tram and is left as a virtual cripple with just a few days left to suffer.
Is it well written?
Having read Heart of Darkness, The Shadow-Line and now Under Western Eyes there is a device that Conrad uses – allowing a narrator to tell his or someone else’s story – so this is based largely on a document that Razumov is meant to have written. As a result you get to be inside the Russian’s head while the Westerner (narrator) struggles to understand what it all means and fails to grasp what constitutes the motives for Russian behaviour most of the time. But of course none of those sentiments would be possible if the writing was not able to express them. The one note of criticism here is that perhaps this story does not lend itself to the Conrad style, which slowly evolves to a crescendo when the truth become apparent. The problem here is that there is nor clear cut right and wrong making it harder for a reader to judge Razumov’s actions.
Should it be read?
It is not going to be top of the list unless you happen to like Conrad and books about Russia, particularly ones covering the early days of the revolutionary movement. As a love story it has a bitter ending for Miss Haladin and as a story of courage the man who speaks the truth (both Haladin and Razumov) both end up getting executed in different ways. But it does deserve to be read alongside other works, like Petersburg, and reminds you in a way that perhaps a native Russian writer might not have done so much, that large amounts of activity in the run-up to the 1917 revolution happened outside Russia in places like Geneva.
In this tale of revolutionists and those trying to stop them there are no real victors only innocent victims torn apart by events and of those possibly the most obvious to begin with is Razumov.
Version read – Penguin Twentieth Century Classics paperback
Although Conrad is not strictly a Russian writer, because he took British nationality although was born in the Ukraine, he manages to get the hang of a tragic ending although he ties things up in a way that maybe a Russian literary star would have avoided, preferring to end it with Razumov stumbling into a tram car. Still that has been the idea of the book that it is a Westerners interpretation of Russians.
Bullet points between pages 212 – 268
* The true situation of Razumov becomes clear with him being a double agent working for the police back in Russia collecting information on the revolutionists and sending it back for the authorities
* He finally appears at the Haladin’s after the daughter had gone out to fetch him because the mother suspected she was keeping a secret life from her but things don’t go quite according to plan and Razumov confesses to her he betrayed her brother
* Following the confession Razumov finishes the document that the narrator uses as the basis for the story and then heads to tell the revolutionists the truth and is rewarded by having his eardrums burst and ends up being hit by a tram
* The maid working at the revolutionary headquarters in Geneva who had promised to look after him in the event of trouble steps forward and makes sure that he is taken to hospital and finally goes back to Russia with him but Razumov is left a cripple without much time left to live
* Haladin’s mother dies and the daughter heads back to Russia handing the Razumov document to the English narrator who bids farewell to the daughter who heads back and dedicates herself to helping those unfortunates in prison and hospitals
* The narrator is left behind in Geneva and stumbles across one of the revolutionists years later who tells him what has become of everyone and provides a powerful reminder that revolutions are an obsession of the young and the old often have the wisdom to see the bigger picture
Review will be posted over the weekend…
Part of the key to Razumov’s behaviour is not just his dilemma about being immersed in a revolutionary circle he can’t stand but also his fear that at any moment he is going to be discovered for the liar that he has been and far from being a friend to Haladin he is not far off being his executioner. But something happens that gives him the confidence to think that he is safe. But just at that point the story goes back to the interrogation with the investigating police officer and you sense that he is not going to be as safe as he thinks he is.
Bullet points between pages 169 – 212
* Razumov meets an old revolutionary contact he came across in Zurich and at first is as sneering and boorish as he has been with everybody else but he is scared that she might see through him
* But he is relieved when she reveals that a contact in Russia has discovered that the man who was meant to help Haladin escaper, who Razumov met and beat because he was drunk, hanged himself after feeling remorse for letting his comrade down
* Nobody knows the identity of the man who beat the horse man and the victim himself said he believed it was the devil who gave him a beating which amuses Razumov who believes he killed himself over a failed love affair not over remorse for Haladin
* The story then switches back to the interrogation when Razumov had been asked where he was going to go and the interrogating officer tells him that he will return to the police and tell them everything at some point in the future of his own free will
In the last fifty pages will that prediction come true? Find out tomorrow…
Once chance encounter with Haladin, who has identified Razumov as being a like-minded friend, leads to his life being ruined and identification with the revolutionary movement that leads to him traveling to Stuttgart and getting a mission that takes him to Geneva.
Bullet points between pages 114 – 168
* There are two important meetings in the space of a few pages with Haldin’s sister meeting Razumov with both showing signs of emotion barely able to share a word with her mistaking it for the deep emotion of a friend
* Then Razumov meets the narrator and is so rude to him that it becomes clear he is angry with the consequences of his association with Haladin and ends up describing the involvement with it all as a curse
* He then disappears from view for a while but after keeping away for a long time goes to visit the revolutionary leader Peter Ivanovitch at the house of the feminist millionaire who is supporting him
* Razumov sits there and listens to her moaning on about the Tsar and the dukes who have fleeced her of her money and then makes a play of being a dedicated revolutionary to Ivanovitch and urges him to stop prevaricating and inspire some action
* Ivanovitch urges him to bring Haladin’s sister to the house but as Razumov leaves the maid warns him against bringing her and tells him that she trusts him and will follow him anywhere and help him with his mission
Quite what will become of Razumov who believes that the revolutionary activity is immoral is not quite clear and will he finally settle accounts with the Haladin family? Maybe some answers will come tomorrow…
As the story develops you are faced with the interesting situation where the narrator, who has up to now been using Razumov’s diary as the source material adding other comments about Russian characteristics to the narration, becomes part of the story. Although they have not yet met you can start to imagine the twists that will take place to enable them to do so.
Bullet points between pages 51 – 114
* Having shopped his fellow student, who is executed after failing to provide the police with any information, Razumov becomes associated with Haladin by default and others in the revolutionary circle presume he is one of them
* He is dragged in front of the police after having his rooms searched and accuses his interrogator of treating him as a suspect but then walks out with the question of where he will go left hanging in the air
* Then the action moves to Geneva where the narrator, who is a language teacher, has been employed to help Haladin’s sister learn English and so he comes across the Haladin sister and mother who expect great things of their brother and son
* The narrator discovers in an English paper the fact that Haladin has been executed for the politicians murder and shares it with the family, which in a way makes them more attractive to one section of the émigré Russian community
* Peter Ivanovitch, a celebrated revolutionary Russian feminist, tells Miss Haladin that Razumov is in Geneva and because he was a friend of her brother’s she sets out to meet him to find out more about the circumstances surrounding her brother’s arrest and execution
Against a backdrop of anti-Tsarist feeling the hero of the book wants to rise up the ranks and overcome his problems. The way Conrad approaches this is that, as he warns in the introduction, is to try and see how Russians are perceived under Western eyes and as a result he is prepared to sacrifice some death of characterisation in order to get over the general Russian philosophy. Time will tell if he succeeds.
Bullet points between pages 1 – 50
* The focus of attention is a student Razumov who is diligent and hopes that he can out his low birth behind him by doing well and appeasing his benefactor a Prince he has only ever met once briefly
* Meanwhile an assassination is carried out of a Tsarist minister who has been responsible for repressing, exiling and punishing those who fight against the system as two students throw bombs at him with the first failing to kill him but the second hitting its mark
* The second bomb has been thrown by Victor Haladin who is a fellow student and seeks refuge in Razumov’s rooms and explains that it is a war and that’s why he did it but also expresses some regret and shows mental and emotional exhaustion at having carried out the act
* Haladin asks Razumov to help him escape but instead he goes to his benefactor the Prince who takes him to a general who says they will capture Haladin and then sends Razumov back to his rooms
* The clock stops, the minutes seem to go slowly but finally Haladin, who realises that his fellow student does not agree with his act, leaves and disappears into the night without Razumov having the courage to do anything but stay inside his rooms